“Keep death daily before your eyes.” (RB 4.47)
This quote from the Rule of Benedict has rankled ever since I first heard it when I was in college. It’s one of the tools of good works Benedict provides for living in community, for being a good disciple. The RB80 translation is slightly different: “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” Regardless, the point is the same: we die.
Try as I might, this is not a concept I’m comfortable with. Even with the deaths of people close to me, I struggle with my own mortality. It will happen; I do know that. But I don’t like it. I’m afraid of it. I do not want to keep it daily before my eyes. I’ve had enough death and dying around; I’d prefer we all just avoid it for a bit.
Enter covid-19. Because of the pandemic, this quote from the Rule has been rolling around in my head a lot. Daily, you might say. As deaths mount, these words whisper. I struggle with comprehending the numbers of dead. We passed eighty thousand dead this week. And that’s just in the United States. And that’s just the ones we know about for sure. My town has sixty-seven thousand people in it; the equivalent of my whole town plus change is gone. We can’t help but keep death daily before our eyes.
Today is my dad’s birthday. His birthday has never been as hard for me as his anniversary, but it does give me pause. It’s the first of three days in May remembering dead people. In five days, we’ll remember my uncle Kevin’s anniversary; five days after that, my uncle Shaun’s. We are different people because of the deaths we know. I am not who I was before any of these people died, even Kevin, who died when I was very young.
After Shaun died, one of the things I really struggled with was how much I defined my life by loss. I wanted a different defining feature, one that was more hopeful, lively, joyous. Other people get those definitions. Why couldn’t I? As the years have passed, I’ve embraced these losses. That doesn’t mean they’ve been easy or that I like that they happened. But rather than ripping out the stitches, which was precisely what I wanted to do when Shaun died, I’ve learned to work with the pattern I have. It’s fair to say I’ve kept the deaths of my loved ones before my eyes daily. But my own? No, I resist that.
I am a sporadic yoga practitioner. For a while I went to a yoga studio in town with some regularity, but then it closed. I’ve had on-again off-again relationships with various yoga apps, but the one I’ve settled on is Practice with Clara, by Clara Roberts-Oss. Last week I realized I needed some structure in my mornings, so I started doing one of her classes every morning during the week. I’m standing differently. I feel more grounded. I’m breathing deeper.
Yoga classes end with a pose called savasana, corpse pose. You lie on your back, palms up, arms and legs extended, eyes closed. You be still. In savasana, the practice settles into your body and you rest. As I’ve restarted my practice, I’ve been attentive to what corpse pose is preparing me for. I still don’t like it. But I rest into it. I be still with it. And I let mortality settle in me.
I don’t know that I will ever truly be comfortable with this practice of keeping death daily before my eyes. Maybe it does simply take time to settle into our bones and blood, our mind and heart. Benedict didn’t say, “Get okay with dying,” or, “Be totally at peace with your mortality.” He said to remind yourself that you will die, that you are mortal. In other words, ground yourself in this reality of death and go from there.
It’s hard to be grounded in this mortality when the death seems senseless or preventable or otherwise infuriating. But maybe that’s all the more reason to remember death daily. Maybe that’s all the more reason to lie on the ground, still ourselves, and let our own mortality settle into us.